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Downtown Development Redux

May 29th, 2012 | By | Category: Essays, Features, Front Page

A discussion of the viability of Elizabethtown’s central business district appeared in the Elizabethtown Journal in July of 2010 (  Included in that discussion was an assessment of the current state of affairs, problems confronting development efforts, and some strategies for future development.  Since 2010, the Journal has not revisited this matter.  Although interest in downtown never departs from the public consciousness; it recently has received some renewed energy.  This, in part, is due to the formation of a new business group, Market Street! Improving Business, and several community-oriented web pages.  Consequently, it is an opportune time for the Journal to revisit this issue.

In the 2010 forum it was suggested that the Elizabethtown community would be best served by employing a “programming” development strategy in the downtown area.  The goal of employing this method is to hasten the development of a retail niche for the business district.  In the “programming” method public (or private) assistance favors specific types of retail businesses over others.  This method is the fastest and most reliable path to creating a retail niche.  It also is the most reliable method of assuring that downtown development reflects the interest of the community-at-large.  Once the number of businesses of a specific type reaches a niche threshold, public support can be reduced.  At that point, the advantages of agglomerative economies in the unsupported market will continue to develop the niche.  This is not a simple or an easy endeavor, however.  Issues of fairness, proper identification of community interest, funding support, and other issues all contribute to making this agenda a difficult one.  Nevertheless, if the development goal is to establish a sustainable retail business district that serves the interest of the local community; then this method is far more effective than traditional methods that focus solely on infrastructure development and general business support.

Unfortunately, the outlook for instituting such a plan is not an optimistic one.  In addition to the technical difficulties mentioned above, the method requires that one of the following be present:

  1. Significant public support,
  2. A single developer interested in many properties and/or businesses, or
  3. A consortium of developers or development groups working to develop a single plan.

Given the current state of public finance, the first is very unlikely.  Unless someone with a keen local interest is identified, the second is also unlikely.  The third is the most likely of the three, but additional organizational problems accompany this strategy.

In the section that follows, a description of a niche suitable for the Elizabethtown central business district is presented.  It is offered as a description of an end-state and it does not include any process details.  Those details are arguably the most difficult part of the plan to develop. In fact, when one considers the details, some or much of what is presented may appear to be nearly impossible to achieve.  As a consequence, the description below should be considered only an example of the potential of niche development. It is presented as an elucidation of method rather than a presentation of actual content.  It is primarily intended to serve as a departure point for discussion.


The Niche

In the 2010 forum it was suggested that the a downtown providing the retail needs of daily life is beyond resuscitation. There are many reasons for this.  These include the popularity of big box stores, the emergence of larger supermarkets, the decline of single-screen cinemas, the consolidation of pharmacies into retail chains with convenient parking, the decline of the five and dime, the emergence of shopping malls, the increased availability of private transportation, and the emergence of life styles that are more cosmopolitan and less local.  These forces are very strong.  Although the era of the traditional downtown’s viability has passed, it does not imply the death knell for all community downtown retail districts.  A niche oriented retail district still has the potential to flourish.

The question then is, “Which niche?”  Among the easiest niches to develop is an entertainment and dining niche.  This is a niche that benefits greatly from economies of agglomeration, even on a relatively small scale.  Additionally, patrons use these services in a leisurely rather than a hurried manner.  This can contribute to the success of proximate retail establishments that offer unrelated goods and services.  Crafts and art-related businesses are a good choice here, since there is an entertainment value to shopping this sector.  Retail shopping malls are able to establish themselves as a “destination” by virtue of their sheer size and the variety which they offer.  For smaller retail agglomerations, this is not an option.  It has to be achieved by programming the compatibility of retail establishments and developing a niche.  An entertainment district has a good potential to emerge into a regional “destination”.

The Market

Geographically, viability is optimized if the targeted market includes both the local community and outsiders.  It is important to note that the targeted market considered here is in reference to the business mix as a whole and not to individual businesses considered separately.  Developing an identifiable niche is the predominant requisite of capturing a regional market.  An identifiable niche is essential to making downtown Elizabethtown a destination.

The local market requires special consideration.  It was previously stated that the downtown should be developed in a fashion that meets the interests of the local community, not just the business community.  This is important for without embracing it, there is little reason to afford more attention and resources to the downtown area than to other potential retail districts.  Accommodating the local community answers the question, “Why downtown?”  The interest of the community-at-large is twofold. The first dimension of local community interest is a downtown that can be used on a fairly regular basis.  If the drug store, the 5 and 10, and the grocery store are not in the cards, it will require considerable forethought to plan a business mix that includes businesses that can be used on a fairly regular basis.  The second dimension of the local community interest is developing the downtown area in a fashion that that helps define the community, that is, it becomes a signature for Elizabethtown.  Having this signature is an important part of the local culture and is a contributor to a sense of community.  The development of a niche will not only make Elizabethtown a destination for those outside the community, but it will also provide the signature that helps local residents identify with the community.

It would also be prudent to include businesses in the plan that target teenagers, young adults, and retirees.  Such a strategy is likely to put more people on the sidewalk and to have the area used throughout the day.  Having an active sidewalk culture is a significant contributor to identifying Elizabethtown as a “place” and will go a long way to constructing the signature that is Elizabethtown.

What businesses should be planned into the initial mix?  The choice is relatively, but not completely, an open-ended one.  Given that the choices are many, the suggestion below is not meant to be binding for the plan.  What is most important here is how the businesses complement one another and how, when considered as a whole, the mix creates a niche and a community identity.

  • A low-capital business that can contribute significantly to the sidewalk culture is an organized street vendor business.  Street food is the easiest, but not the only, choice here.  A variety of carts offering big city street food is the natural option.  This low-capital business might be appropriate for a single community-committed owner.  Retirees or students can service the carts as employees or lessees of the carts.  If public support is offered, the endeavor should be managed so competition with other food establishments is minimized.  This business requires minimal capital for startup and capital equipment can be liquidated easily if the business dissolves.
  • Rooftop entertainment can contribute to a special signature for Elizabethtown and punctuate the niche definition.  If several businesses can be developed as rooftop businesses, then this feature is quite likely to become the special feature of the business district that differentiates it from others and, concomitantly, it will become a defining part of the signature and the niche. Rooftop miniature golf and rooftop dining are proven enterprises.  Although rooftop miniature golf exists mainly in resort areas, it has a tremendous appeal for the goals of this plan.  Downtown Elizabethtown currently has many flat roofs, which may be an advantage toward the improvement and redevelopment of some properties.
  • Restaurants are the lynchpin of an entertainment niche.  The critical challenge for a development plan is how to combine individual businesses symbiotically to create an identifiable niche.  One option here might be to solicit international cuisine startups to create an international restaurant row.  This would differentiate Elizabethtown from other restaurant rows in the region and, consequently, add to the definition of the signature and niche. The recruitment of businesses may be enhanced by developing a community liaison group with a nearby culinary school.  The community liaison group can offer reduced labor cost for business startups and training sites for the participating school.
  • Many small businesses can be enhanced by the development of sales and marketing cooperatives.  There is a substantial history of cooperatives in the crafts industry.  Craft cooperatives provide opportunities for businesses too small to develop brick and mortar retail outlets.  They also provide a more rapid turnover of retail products which will contribute to the continual flow of patrons.
  • Partnering with Elizabethtown College to create a low-capital student-run community business may be possible. The business would then serve as a classroom and laboratory for business students and offer for-credit and for-pay employment for students.  The advantage of this to the development plan is that it would put more college students on the street.  One model is a cooperative endeavor that includes private capital.  This model can provide profit for the private capital while the college assumes some of the risk for red ink in exchange for the teaching opportunity.
  • As patronage of the business district increases, nearby public space and parkland may be incorporated into the plan.  Special events can enhance patronage of the business district and patrons of the business district can bolster attendance of the events.  Of special interest are the fields behind GEARS.  This area is adequately buffered from residential areas to support nighttime events.  Increased usage of these spaces may accelerate the existing proposal of integrating the public lands that run along the east-west axis of the borough.

The plan described above, although incomplete and perhaps whimsical at times, is intended to stimulate thought about the role, the need, and shape of downtown development in Elizabethtown.  It is also intended to fracture the box of traditional thought about community development and an invitation to consider non-traditional strategies.  Comments and discussion are highly encouraged.

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  1. Arrangements that allow students to run a business can also help colleges attract entrepreneurially-minded students. See “To Develop Student Entrepreneurs, Colleges Incubate Their Ideas” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, May 13, 2012 (unfortunately, behind a paywall):
    “John Herb came up with a business idea while he was still in high school. So when it was time to choose a college, he looked for one that would help him develop that idea: scanning people’s old photos and creating a private social network around them. Syracuse University stood out for the Syracuse Student Sandbox, a business incubator, and other resources it offers to would-be entrepreneurs…”

  2. I feel I can offer a unique perspective on the Downtown community and the ongoing revitalization efforts. A native of Elizabethtown, I located my gallery business on Downtown Market Street in 2000, with one goal in mind – to give back to a community that has given much to me. Though I have experienced countless challenges and pursued change in response, my passion for this community stubbornly continues.

    In 2007 we moved our residence above the business, once again accommodating the live/work experience I had with a framing business in my home as I raised my four children. The move has given me a 24/7, front row seat to issues and day-to-day happenings in the Downtown community. Given the opportunity, I’ll talk at length about what I’ve learned, seen, and heard, and yes…offer my opinions.

    A founding board member of Market Street! Improving Business, the fledgling non-profit focused on strategizing the future of sustainable downtown revitalization, I am excited about the opportunities for the future – especially in light of the recent influx of new leadership in our community. Our board currently consists of Andy Schoenberger, Epic Photography; Bradley Alexander, Pita Pit; Deb Dupler, Chamber representative; Phil Clark, Borough Council representative; and Marty Hollinger (Hollinger Services) as bookkeeper.

    I believe Downtown Elizabethtown is primed and ready for sustainable revitalization, thanks to infrastructure initiatives at the borough level, fresh leadership in our community, and willingness for ongoing dialogue and discussion. Such discussion reinforces the need to consider different ideas and priorities, but underscores a common desire… to live in community with a vibrant Downtown with places to meet, eat, and shop.

    Perhaps I need to back up and explain what I mean by “sustainable revitalization.” Elizabethtown has seen a glimpse of what this can look like – remember 2003? All the storefronts were painted, occupied, and there were several larger downtown businesses providing ready walking traffic on our sidewalks. By 2005, several were again shuttered, large investments were lost, and I often heard the comment, ”well, I guess Etown can’t support small business.” The revitalization we experienced wasn’t sustainable, and in an attempt to offer some insight, let me provide a bit of historical context.

    The Elizabethtown Economic Development Corporation (EEDC) non-profit was formed in 2000, out of which our Downtown Main Street program was later born. Main Street Manager, Beth Wood Bergman, was hired to coordinate revitalization efforts. Stakeholders including the Borough, Chamber, Masonic Village, Elizabethtown College, Mars, the School District, and the Municipality were seated at the table to coordinate projects and efforts more efficiently, and they did so brilliantly.

    The EEDC Board, Chamber and Main Street programs, coordinated out of Beth’s office, yielded a 10-year Strategic Plan for the Downtown (the Gleason Report), implemented a successful Façade Grant program, and raised funds for a Revolving Loan Fund intended to support small businesses coming into the Downtown. Small business owners like myself, benefitted from these programs, and the businesses that didn’t make it? I argue it wasn’t lack of community support, but unforeseen personal or business circumstances, or lack of adequate financial resources and planning to survive a start up business.

    Downtown Elizabethtown has exceptional community support for long term change at all levels, and a willing participation – both organizationally and financially. But sustainable revitalization requires a long-term strategic plan with constant monitoring, and an ever-watchful leadership ready to adapt to change. While focus on select goals and objectives is needed to operate efficiently, all must be held within the context of the bigger picture.

    It pays to hire experts. EEDC provided funds for the Gleason Report, which became the blueprint for our Downtown Economic Development plan, still in use today. The process allowed for intensive research providing insight into our Downtown’s strengths and weaknesses, and necessary context for goals and expectations moving forward. We learned that Elizabethtown, while it doesn’t have a Town Square for gathering and local governmental buildings located Downtown, it does have traffic counts and established institutions – Elizabethtown College, M&M Mars, and Masonic Village – other small towns are trying to attract.

    A Main Street Manager provides a hub for business and community resources, full time advocacy on the community’s behalf, and oversight of efforts revolving around the “big picture.” When this position was supported, we were an example to communities around us – “what is Etown doing that we aren’t?” Then they went out and got their own Main Street Manager, i.e. Mount Joy, while our office’s focus was diluted with all the additional duties it acquired. Look around – Lititz, Mount Joy, Ephrata, Manheim all have Main Street offices. It makes a difference.

    An expanded College and Market Street Square, renovation of the Amtrak station, and the pedestrian pathway being built from Downtown to the train station are the fruit of long term strategic planning at the borough level. Our Public Library was constructed on Market Street and the Main Street/Chamber Office was located a few doors down, along with a Borough Police satellite office, before it was recently moved to the train station.

    Along with additional pedestrian pathways proposed in the community, the Borough, Municipality and Township are partnering to expand the bike riding trail from the Conewago Rail Trail, through Downtown, out to the river and back. The Chamber Board recently reorganized under new leadership, narrowing their focus more deliberately, providing increased resources for business leadership such as Leadercast and SCORE business seminars.

    Market Street! Improving Business was organized to promote and support existing Downtown community businesses, and attract potential new ones. An ever-growing number of new business and property owners are filling our Downtown storefronts, and it’s our goal to listen to their experiences, share our findings with the Borough and Chamber, advocating with our State Representatives when necessary, and work to establish a more business-friendly atmosphere.

    MSIB is currently designing a map of the Downtown corridor and the surrounding integral neighborhoods to promote our pedestrian-friendly community, and make it easier for guests in our town to navigate parking and explore. Two things I always hear are “there’s no parking downtown,” and “there aren’t any shops.” We intend to change the perspective on those two issues, and channel fresh enthusiasm and discussion into an ongoing strategic plan for sustainable revitalization.

  3. What is a success for downtown Elizabethtown? How can we make it more successful? I believe the answer is linked to people and their choices. People need to speak up about what matters to them and then take steps to make things happen, even if they seem like small steps.

    Rather than looking at the challenges Elizabethtown faces, I would like to highlight a small success. Saturday, May 19, several downtown businesses in cooperation with Elizabethtown Public Library worked together in a program called Reading on the Square. About 100 people showed up and participated in a fun activity that moved them from corner to corner looking for answers to questions they found in a provided book. Businesses provided prizes that will be disbursed just after each of the three Reading on the Square program Saturdays (May 19, June 16, July 21.) Free books were swapped or given away and there were $1 deals at several businesses on the Square. There were a lot of happy people out on a beautiful day walking, shopping, talking, and supporting downtown Elizabethtown.

    People walked to the Square a few at a time. One lady asked, “Where are all the people?” If you do something and do not see anyone else doing it, you may think you are the only one. Does anyone shop downtown? There were people, just not all at the same time. You could be one of them for the next Reading on the Square (June 16, then July 21) or any day stores are open.

    These people made a choice to come downtown and be a part of something positive for themselves and their town. Many found businesses that they did not know existed – a bookstore, a bakery, a comic book store, hair salons, etc. Some appreciated the learning opportunity. It was small, but it was good. It was people working together, making choices for themselves, their families, their businesses, their town.

  4. I have heard the same song and dance regarding the revitalization of Elizabethtown for well over two decades and it has virtually gone nowhere in the 15 years I lived and ran businesses in the area. Regardless of what ideas or concepts comes into play for the area, Elizabethtown is nothing more than a bedroom community capable of supporting service oriented businesses and the basic necessity stores for locals.

    As far back as 1990 when I moved in the area and renovated one of the older homes on South Market Street with my partner, we encountered nothing but disdain from the community in general. At the time there were a handful of interested home-owner based businesses and downtown storekeepers that made good attempts to attract customers into town. With little to no support from the town officials on promoting “downtown” ,
    businesses have come and gone over the years after they realize that it is not worth the uphill struggle to continue investing in an area that simply does not have the insight, zest or interest of change.

    Sometimes businesses and towns simply “work” because of location, good economic demographics, tourist appeal, etc. or a combination of all of the above. However, Elizabethtown, being at the far western edge of the county, attracts little tourism and does not have a strong enough base of support from the town in general that wishes to attract vibrant change. Even the relationship between the town and Elizabethtown College is one that is virtually non-existant.

    Since I have moved out of the area, now I can vividly see that Elizabethtown is simply a community that shares only an interest in catering to the basic staples of life’s needs. It is not a town ready for change – if so, it would have changed years and years ago. There have been interested people willing to invest in the town over the years but just as myself, they too found that there are far more greener pastures for thriving business locations.

    Save your time, money and frustrations and allow the town to remain a quiet, rural, bedroom community and stop wasting money on needless “studies” on how to attract businesses. You can not force a town to become a tourist spot or a thriving metropolis if it has no real drawcard to begin with. If only I had only known the outcome twenty years ago I would have escaped the confines of hopeless visions many dollars earlier.

  5. [...] Postscript: Community economic development and community social development are mutually dependent.  The latter has been the major focus of this article.  EJ has previously published two articles on downtown community economic development.  in those two articles, the relationship of community economic development to community social community development was discussed.  The first can be found at this hyperlink.  The second at this one. [...]

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